Animal bite management and potential rabies exposures in humans
One of the most effective ways to prevent rabies infection is immediate, thorough cleansing of the animal bite or scratch wounds with liberal amounts of soap and water for 10-15 minutes.
It is important for bite victims to notify their local health department (or local law enforcement when public health staff are unavailable) whenever a bite occurs to ensure that the biting animal is appropriately and legally observed or tested for rabies. It is also vital not to release or destroy a biting animal until a public health official or an animal control officer is consulted. The victim's physician should also be notified promptly.
In most instances, observation or testing of the biting animal will rule out the possibility of rabies and will therefore eliminate any need for the bite victim to undergo the series of injections. If circumstances of the exposure warrant it, however, a physician will administer preventive medications (called post-exposure prophylaxis) to the bite victim. This preventive treatment consists of an injection of rabies immune globulin immediately, and four doses of the rabies vaccine given over the course of 14 days. The vaccine is injected in the arm, similar to a tetanus shot. Click here for details on the preventive post-exposure regimen.
Exposures to bats are worrisome because some people with very minor exposures to bats have contracted rabies. If there has been any possibility of physical contact with a bat, even without a known bite, the animal should be safely captured and held until a public health official or a physician can be consulted.
It should be noted that domestic animals that are exposed to rabies constitute a very real threat to their human owners, particularly if the animal is unvaccinated.
Exposure to rabies may be minimized by the following measures:
- Eliminate stray dogs and cats and enforce leash laws.
- Vaccinate pet dogs, cats, ferrets, and livestock against rabies.
- Stay away from all wild animals, especially those acting abnormally.
- Teach your children not to approach any unfamiliar animals.
- Do not keep exotic or wild animals as pets, regardless of how young or cute they are.
- Exclude bats from living quarters by keeping screens in good repair and by closing any small openings that could allow them to enter.
- Persons traveling to developing countries in which rabies is highly prevalent, or persons who are at ongoing risk of possible rabies exposure (e.g., veterinarians, animal control officers), should ask their doctor about receiving the PRE-exposure rabies vaccinations.
Members of the public should contact their local public health department (county or municipal) and their health care provider regarding animal bite/rabies concerns. During off-hours, animal bite calls may be handled by local law enforcement personnel.
The Communicable Disease Epidemiology Section of the Wisconsin Division of Public Health offers consultation on situations involving potential human exposures to rabies.
Local health department staff or health care providers can call 608-267-9003 during regular office hours, or the DPH emergency answering service at 608-258-0099 on nights and weekends, in order to consult with an epidemiologist.
Questions regarding the submission of specimens for rabies testing to the State Laboratory of Hygiene, or about the reporting of test results, can be addressed to the SLH Rabies Unit at 608-262-7323 during regular office hours.
To consult about potential animal exposures to rabies, callers can contact Dr. Yvonne Bellay at the Wisconsin Division of Animal Health at 608-224-4888. It should be noted that domestic animals that are exposed to rabies constitute a very real threat to their human owners. Accordingly, Wisconsin statute 95.21 also addresses animal exposures to rabies and defines circumstances under which such an animal is subject to quarantine.
Animal bite management from the perspective of rabies prevention:
Wisconsin Rabies Prevention flowchart (Rabies algorithm)